Paleo. Atkins. Zone. Dukan. Bodybuilding. Raw. South Beach. Weight Watchers. If It Fits Your Macros. Carb Backloading. The list of diets is never-ending and for each one you research, you’ll find gushing testimonials: “It worked for me, you’ve got to try it!” It’s fair to assume that every diet you hear about has indeed worked for some people, for without success no diet would ever gain the traction necessary to be known the world over. With that being said, here’s the dirty little secret that nobody ever talks about:
There isn’t one best diet for everyone.
Last week we discussed the history of nutrition advice and why we’re afraid of carbs and confused by fats. Now, if you suffer from Celiac disease it’s not hard to accept that a low-carb diet is likely a safe option for you; avoiding death is a great a motivator. But what if you’re someone who’s genetically pre-disposed to favourably metabolize carbohydrates? You can try cramming a high-fat diet down your throat because you’ve read that carbs are evil and insulin will make you fat, but given your individual genetic makeup your odds of improving body composition or health on such a diet are miniscule.
Unfortunately for us humans, we aren’t manufactured in a factory and don’t come stamped with dietary recommendations. For this reason, it’s up to us as individuals to take the information at hand and to make the best decisions my listening to our own bodies. Let’s take a look at some of the basics that can help you determine the diet strategy that’s best for you.
Why we need carbs
Dietary carbohydrate has one major purpose: To provide energy. Carbs are broken down in the body to produce glucose and the brain and central nervous system require roughly 130g of this substrate daily to function optimally. It’s so important for the body to receive this glucose that it has evolved with the ability to manufacture the necessary amount from other sources in lieu of adequate dietary carb intake. Although glucose is important for health, dietary carbs aren’t an essential daily macronutrient because we can generate everything we need from other sources.
If dietary carbs are not used immediately for energy, the body will then store them for future use. The preferred means of storage is within muscle as glycogen. When humans perform demanding bouts of exercise like sprinting or lifting a heavy weight, stored carbs (in the form of muscle glycogen) are depleted to produce energy. For this reason, the one area in which carbs are indisputably required is during high-intensity activity, meaning carbs are critical for athletes competing in power, strength or speed sports.
By contrast, people who do not exercise at high intensities are rarely tasked to deplete their stores of muscle glycogen. For individuals who fit this sedentary description, consistent consumption of carbohydrate-rich meals will therefore lead to increased fat storage. With muscle glycogen stores constantly at capacity, the body has no choice but to store extra energy as body fat.
Why we need fats
Dietary fats have a much broader scope of necessity and have several important functions in the human body including but not limited to:
- Energy (as per the 9 kcals per gram, fat is the most energy-dense macronutrient)
- The production of hormones
- The formation of our cell membranes
- The formation of our brains and nervous system
- The transport of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K
For these reasons, an excessively low-fat diet can lead to long-term health ramifications. It’s also important to note that although the human body is excellent at taking food and creating the necessary substrates, it cannot synthesize two fats that are essential for health: Omega-6 linoleic acid and the Omega-3 family, ALA, EPA & DHA.
Linoleic acid is widely available through products containing processed oils, however, the most important Omega-3s (DHA and EPA) can only meaningfully be attained through oceanic sources. Having a balanced intake of Omega-3s vs. Omega-6s is critical for optimal health and the prevention of inflammation and disease. It is for this reason that wild fish and grass-fed dairy are superfoods and yet another reason why sugar and processed foods should be minimized.
From an energy perspective, fats provide more energy than carbs. If you have 10% body fat your have more than 30,000 calories of energy stored on your body. Fats are the preferred source of energy during low to moderate-intensity activity, which is the majority of the human existence. This is good to remember when you have cravings for carbohydrate-rich snacks; fight this urge and your body will be forced to burn fat to release energy.
It is important to note that excessive dietary fats, much like excessive dietary carbs, will be converted to body fat. A high-fat-high-carb diet will ultimately lead to increased body fat.
What are your needs?
When trying to find the best diet for you as an individual, don’t rely on message boards or testimonials but instead ask yourself what’s best for you. Many people have found success on both low-fat and low-carb diets, so keep an open mind and take the approach that will work best for your lifestyle…